Theatre: Trains and boats and planes

The epic Cloudstreet is about to land in London. What's the secret of its success?
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE two routes for a writer whose novel has been optioned for stage or screen. Either take the opportunity to help turn it into another form, or take the money and run. Jeanette Winterson did the former with her own TV adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and improved it in the process. Australian novelist Tim Winton, however, distanced himself from the proceedings when Nick Enright and Justin Monjo decided to adapt his bestseller Cloudstreet.

Even in Britain, it had been showered with praise. One review cried, "Imagine Neighbours taken over by the writing team of John Steinbeck and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and you'll be close to the heart of Winton's impressive tale."

Yet according to Neil Armfield, the director of the monstrously successful stage version, Winton was happy to take no part in it. "He was extremely trusting and felt we would do a good job with it but he'd written The Riders since then [which was nominated for the Booker prize] and he wanted to move on." Armfield cites Patrick White, one of the giants of Australian fiction, who often despaired at having written the notorious Voss - "He felt plagued by it" - and believes that Winton's wish not to end up in a similar position with his novel explains his approving but absent stance.

Ironically, the automatic linkage between an artist and a single work may come to haunt Armfield. He's the artistic director of Company B - the acclaimed Sydney-based company which is close to a cross between Cheek by Jowl and the Almeida, with an accent on new writing (not to mention a second home to the likes of Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush) - and alongside Baz Luhrmann he's one of Australia's most significant theatre figures. But Cloudstreet is rapidly becoming his calling card. It has played across Australia, has just had a triumphant run in Zurich and arrives at the Riverside in London tomorrow night.

Actually, it's more like early evening. Curtain-up is at 6.30 because the show runs for three hours and 50 minutes plus meal breaks. Not that audiences have been daunted by that. Rather the opposite. The show has had a galvanising effect, similar to that of the RSC's epic two-part Nicholas Nickelby, which Armfield saw in a cloned production by Sydney Theatre Company. Despite admiring it, he considered the logistics of mounting a version of another company's show to be a waste of energy.

Unlike here, where producers are much happier staging the known quantity of a novel as opposed to commissioning a new play, Australian theatre has not been swamped by adaptations. Thus, when Armfield, Enright and Monjo began a three week workshop on the Cloudstreet script at the end of 1996, they never felt that reimagining the book would be a safe option.

Small wonder. This sprawling story of two extraordinarily different families sharing a house in the 1950s, uses 14 actors playing 40-odd characters spanning four generations over 20 years. "The power of the work was very clear. The two groups of characters were so potent, fabulous archetypes for actors to wrap themselves around. It did seem daunting, but the arc of the story felt like a single journey."

Often, when a show has closed and the dust has settled, directors find themselves musing upon how they might have done things differently. Armfield is, therefore, grateful for the opportunity to have second thoughts about it for the international tour. "When we first did it, the work was so big that we got to the end and had to put it on. There were always things I'd been unhappy with."

He might have tinkered with it back then, but the Monday after it opened he was in Cardiff making his British debut directing Billy Budd for WNO, which won an Outstanding Achievement in Opera award.

During re-rehearsals, he's taken it apart to make structural changes. "It now has a simpler, more physicalised approach towards storytelling. . . finding a theatrical language for mystical encounters and drowning and boats flying and miracles." This chimes absolutely with his process, honed over the years (he's in his early forties) which is about working within an empty space in which the smallest detail of behaviour is observable.

"There's an enormous concentration between physical relationships between characters. It's about reducing space and properties to an absolute resonant minimum." A diffident man, he won't be drawn further on his techniques. "I'm not interested in all the jargon, but I want the rehearsal atmosphere to be trusting, without it being falsely so, where people can tell the truth with a strong sense of play and a high level of fun." Despite his attention to detail, he consistently tries to move away from small-scale stories confined to bedrooms or kitchens and one of his continuing pleasures in Cloudstreet is its all-embracing quality. "It somehow seems to deal with the peculiar reality of the history of Australia since colonisation, the country as a physical and spiritual force which white Australians are just now learning to live with. It is a mongrel culture but there is something in the physical landscape that if you listen to it will teach you how to live there."

He longs for dramatic canvases that feel inclusive. "Works that somehow make some declaration about the world we live in. There's something about the epic stage which takes audiences on a trip and reaches the edges of your imagination."

`Cloudstreet' previews at Riverside Studios, London W6 (0181-237 1111) from tomorrow

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